Raucous 'Mexican rodeos' draw crowds, and some discontent, in South Jersey

Cirilo Alvarado of New Castle, Del., offers pony rides to would-be charros Angy Romero and brother Alan (rear).
Cirilo Alvarado of New Castle, Del., offers pony rides to would-be charros Angy Romero and brother Alan (rear). (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 16, 2012

HOPEWELL TOWNSHIP, N.J. - Six-foot-tall speakers blare norteño music across a grass field as members of the overwhelmingly Latino crowd fan themselves and wait for the bulls to be led into a makeshift rodeo ring.

Beers are drunk and tacos de lengua, made with cow's tongue, are consumed. Some watch as cowboys stretch like gymnasts against the metal fencing. Others wait their turn to dance with a young woman in cutoff-jean shorts.

On the edge of the crowd, Ciro Lopez shuffles his brilliant white boots, to the amusement of his mother and son. Between crescendos of tuba and accordion, the 34-year-old warehouse manager says the event is identical to those he attended when he lived in Mexico City and visited family in the countryside.

"The music, the food! It's all the same!" shouts Lopez, who drove an hour to this small Cumberland County farming community from his home in Hainesport. "American rodeo is professional. This is different."

Charreadas, referred to in the States as "Mexican rodeos," have spread beyond their U.S. staging grounds in the Southwest to the East Coast as Latino populations here have grown.

The events have become a source of contention in some communities, drawing protests by animal-rights activists and complaints of noise and unruly behavior.

In Hopewell, 40 miles south of Philadelphia, as many as 2,500 charreada fans have converged on Dutch Neck Village, which owns the field where the shows are held. The throb of music on summer weekends has angered residents who, after four years of back-and-forth between the town and event organizers, want the rodeo out.

"The music, you can hear it a mile or two miles away," said Mayor Bruce Hankins, owner of a local lumber store. "This is a very quiet, peaceful South Jersey community, and we find this tremendously disruptive. You can't sit in your backyard or have a picnic."

Under pressure from animal-rights groups, state legislators in the South and West have outlawed charreada events such as horse tripping, in which cowboys use lassos to bring down a horse in full gallop.

Toby de la Torre, president of the California-based Charros Federation USA, which oversees charreadas in 13 states, said his group had improved the animals' treatment and had been unfairly targeted by activists he said had sneaked into events and covertly shot videos.

They think "that we're all a bunch of illegal immigrants," he said. "But the charreadas are our history. They became a way for people to come together and remember."

Charreadas are believed to have originated in Mexico in the 1600s when, under Spanish rule, elite landowners assembled cavalries to defend their haciendas against attack from indigenous peoples, said Richard Slatta, a history professor at North Carolina State University.

Soon soldiers were competing in games of horsemanship. Over time, what had been a "gentleman's sport" spread to ranch hands, and fiestas grew up around the shows.

"The first documented charreada I read about in the United States was in 1894," Slatta said. "If you trace immigration patterns into the United States, sooner or later you'll see some sign of charreada competition."

In predominantly agricultural Cumberland County, Latinos now make up more than a quarter of the population. The influx of residents with ties to Mexico and Central America brought the rodeos at least four years ago.

Between the bands that play during the bull-riding, the cooks who toil over giant pans of meat, and vendors who do a brisk trade in cheap plastic toys, the rodeo has its own microeconomy.

"In Mexico, this is something we do instead of going to the mall," said Luis Lopez, who sometimes runs a mechanical-bull stand.

Everyone from prosperous business owners to day laborers attends the Hopewell events, which are promoted on Latino radio and run every few weeks amid the peach and apple orchards. For those who have driven from as far as Maryland and New York City, it's like a day back in Mexico.

English is not spoken. Grammy-winning Latino pop acts are flown in from south of the border - and can drive the admission cost up to about $40. Mexican customs, such as placing bets on playing cards revealed in the ring by scantily clad women, are standard.

Elizabeth Ortiz, an 18-year-old high school student from Crofton, Md., whose father once competed in the rodeos, enjoys dressing up in ostrich-skin boots and embroidered shirts to sit in grandstands and dine on what is essentially Mexican street food.

"I'm not sure about the rest of the women here, but I come for the bull-riding," said Ortiz, who was born in the United States. "I've brought my [Anglo] friends a few times. They can't believe it."

Despite the entertainment and booths with $500 cowboy boots on display, it is the arrival of the bull riders that turns heads.

A troupe of men in their 20s and 30s, carrying lassos and extravagantly adorned chaps embroidered with Spanish phrases like "My destiny is with God," they travel the country on a circuit. Top riders can earn upward of $1,000 for a day's work.

At a recent charreada, one rider walked with a limp. Scars and crooked fingers were commonplace. Last fall, a star rider born in the Mexican state of Puebla was killed here when he fell from his bull and the animal dropped to its knees on his chest.

Unlike their brethren in the professional U.S. rodeo circuit, riders wear no chest protection. The spurs some favor - short metal spikes that allow them to ride without holding the bull's neck - are considered dangerous by many.

Without his hands to steady him, "a rider could get knocked out. If the bull is still bucking, it could break [the rider's] back" or cause the bull to "fall on top of him," de la Torre said. "You'd have to be nuts to do that."

For their bravery, the men are accorded a mild celebrity unattainable in their weekday lives working factory jobs in places such as Greensboro, N.C., and Chicago.

In late May, Benito Juarez, 21, a handsome transplant from the Mexican state of Morelos, drew cheers as he rode a bull without using his hands. He dug his spikes into the animal's sides until it finally gave up and Juarez climbed off.

Afterward, a throng of mostly female fans waited to have photographs taken with him.

"It's a little dangerous, but it's what I love," said Juarez, who lives in Minnesota.

Whether the riders will return here July 22, the date of the next scheduled event, is in doubt.

Hankins, the mayor, said last week that he'd had enough and was hopeful that the owner of Dutch Neck Village would force the event out for violating its lease, pointing out the noise complaints and reports of selling alcohol without a permit.

The property owner could not be reached for comment. One of the rodeo's organizers, Jesus Santiago, said he hoped a deal could be worked out.

If not, thousands of eager spectators will have to go elsewhere for their thrills. From late spring through early fall, charreadas also are run in a scattering of places like Cranbury, N.J., and Richmond, Va.

Oscar Rodriguez, 29, a gardener who lives in Bristol, estimated he attended 20 rodeos in the Mid-Atlantic last summer and hoped to see even more this year.

Before the start of a recent event here, as he inspected the tethered bulls for signs of their speed and aggression, he noted that many spectators come more for the party than the sport.

"Soccer is the big thing," he said. "But for me, it's just not exciting. There's a danger here."


Contact James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or jaosborne@phillynews.com.

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